Aug. 28, 2004

When Our Women Go Crazy

by Julia Kasdorf

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Poem: "When Our Women Go Crazy," by Julia Kasdorf, from Sleeping Preacher. © University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted with permission.

When Our Women Go Crazy

When our women go crazy, they're scared there won't be
enough meat in the house. They keep asking
but how will we eat? Who will cook? Will there be enough?
Mother to daughter, it's always the same
questions. The sisters and aunts recognize symptoms:
     she thinks there's no food, same as Mommy
     before they sent her away to that place,
     and she thinks if she goes, the men will eat
     whatever they find right out of the saucepans.
When our women are sane, they can tomatoes
and simmer big pots of soup for the freezer.
They are satisfied arranging spice tins
on cupboard shelves lined with clean paper.
They save all the leftovers under tight lids
and only throw them away when they're rotten.
Their refrigerators are always immaculate and full,
which is also the case when our women are crazy.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Rita Dove, born in Akron, Ohio (1952). Her father encouraged his daughter to take advantage of education, and she was at the top of her class. Her parents assumed that she would go on to become a doctor or lawyer, so when she announced she wanted to be a poet, they weren't sure what to make of it. She said, "[My father] swallowed once and said, 'Well, I've never understood poetry, so don't be upset if I don't read it." Her teachers at college told her that she was throwing her education away if she didn't study something more practical.

But with her poetry collection Thomas and Beulah (1986), based loosely on the lives of her grandparents, she became only the second African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and she went on to become the first African American National Poet Laureate.

Her new book of poems, American Smooth, comes out next month. She wrote, "Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful ... like a bouillon cube: You carry it around and then it nourishes you when you need it."

It's the birthday of the novelist Janet Frame, born in Dunedin, New Zealand (1924). After a nervous breakdown as a young woman, she was confined to a mental institution for ten years, misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, and subjected to electroshock therapy. She managed to write a book of short stories in the hospital, The Lagoon (1951), and it was published without her knowledge.

When a hospital official learned that the book had won numerous literary awards, he arranged for Frame's release from the hospital, and she managed to escape the frontal lobotomy that she had been scheduled to receive. She went on to write many novels, including Faces in the Water (1961) and The Edge of the Alphabet (1962).

She said, "I write from obsession, habit, and because I have a thorn in my foot, head and heart and it hurts and I can't walk or think or feel until I remove it."

It's the birthday of the novelist and playwright Robertson Davies, born in Thamesville, Ontario (1913). In his lifetime he was called the greatest Canadian man of letters, but he never liked being called that. He said, "Canada expects nothing from her writers. [To be a Canadian writer is] as innocuous as being a manufacturer of yogurt." He's best known for his Deptford Trilogy, Fifth Business (1970), The Manticore (1972), and World of Wonders (1975) about a small town Ontario boy who grows up to become involved with magicians, millionaires, and modern-day saints.

He became a successful Shakespearean actor in the 1930's and moved to London, but in 1939, the war closed down all of London's theaters. Davies returned to Canada, out of a job, not sure what to do next. His father encouraged him to take over the family newspaper. He thought it would be an awful job, but he loved it. He covered small-town murders, incest, children locked away in barns and basements, all kinds of scandals, and he found it all tremendously interesting. He said, "I have been among people who would make your hair stand on end. And this is where I find the stuff I put in my books." Davies didn't start writing novels until he was in his forties, and it wasn't until he was fifty-seven that he published Fifth Business (1970) which established him as Canada's most celebrated novelist.

It's the birthday of Germany's great man of letters, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, born in Frankfurt (1749). In his lifetime, he was called "The greatest man the world has ever produced." The founder of German literature, he was also a politician, philosopher, geologist, botanist, anatomist, physicist, and historian of science. He spent much of his later life studying light, and he believed that his theories about the scientific properties of color were more important than all his poetry. Goethe spent about fifty years writing his masterpiece, Faust, about a man who sells his soul to the devil but gets into heaven anyway. The first volume was published in 1808, and he didn't finish the second volume until a few months before he died.

Goethe said, "One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words."

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